When have you felt welcome? What made you feel that way? In today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the Kingdom, to spread the good news that God is still present, still acting, still saving. The way he tells them to do it is really interesting. He says, Stay in people’s homes. Matthew says, ‘whoever is worthy,’ but in Luke’s parallel passage, Jesus says, Just stay with whoever will welcome you. Whoever lets you in, and gives you a corner to sleep in. (And honor their hospitality by staying with them until it’s time to move on; don’t move to a nicer house even if it’s offered!) Don’t bring money, or food, or even extra clothes or shoes. Don’t be self-sufficient. Depend on the kindness of strangers. Jesus knows this will be hard and scary! – “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves!” But he’s very clear about it.
We name welcoming as one of the discipleship practices of our congregation. Receiving one another, for the first or the thousandth time, with warmth and generosity. Embracing people in the fullness of who they are, the scars they carry, the gifts they bring. And we have an icon of welcome hanging near the door to our nave: this little icon, a reproduction of an icon that was painted for St. Francis house, our sister faith community over on campus. Iconographer Drazen Dupor painted that image for St. Francis House, based loosely on very famous icon of the Three Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, today’s Old Testament passage. This story is especially significant in Christian thought because those three angels have long been seen as foreshadowing the Trinity. The scene becomes an icon of hospitality because of Abraham’s ready, no-questions-asked welcome for these three strange guests. It joins countless folktales from around the world of people who responded with kindness towards strangers who turned out to be powerful beings, and rewarded hospitality with blessings – in Abraham and Sarah’s case, their much-wanted, long-awaited child.
The artist told me something about this image that I really enjoy, a significant detail: the napkins are messy. He explained that according to Near Eastern tradition, at the end of the meal, if you’re the guest, and you fold your napkin and neatly place it on the table, it means that you still feel like a guest. Whereas if you just toss your napkin on the table any old how, it means that your hosts succeeded in making you feel like family. You felt truly welcomed. It’s hard to see in this small version, but the iconographer painted the napkins in this image as messy napkins. A detail that calls our attention to the grace and responsibility of being a guest, rather than a host.
This story from the book of Genesis is just one of many examples in Scripture when God comes to humanity as a guest. When God allows humans to set the table, and preside at the feast. Jesus is fundamentally God incarnate as a guest among us. And he’s constantly a guest at some feast or another. Even at the Last Supper, where we imagine him at the head of the table, it was not his table, not his home, not his food. Someone else prepared that meal and made that room available for Jesus and his friends, that evening. God makes Godself our guest, in Genesis, in Jesus; and in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers to do the same. Welcoming is well and good; a few verses later Jesus will promise God’s favor to those who practice hospitality. But here he his directions are: Go be a guest. Why?
It would be so easy to take today’s Scriptures and preach on the virtues and practices of hospitality and welcome. I feel the gravity of it, like a coin circling one of those big plastic funnels at a science museum. But this gospel is not calling us to hospitality. In the language of our Discipleship Practices – conveniently listed on our church fans – this lesson is about proclamation rather than about welcoming. About proclaiming, by word and example, the good news of God’s love and God’s hope for the world, to those outside our community of faith. Evangelism: which means that we take what this all means to us, how it’s touched our lives, given us strength or hope, whatever it is that keeps us coming back, and we carry that with us as part of the story we tell about ourselves, part of the answer we give when someone asks us, How are you? What’s giving you joy? What’s keeping you strong? Evangelism, which in its simplest shyest gentlest form simply means letting the people around you know that God has a place in your life.
Churches, at least mainline Protestant churches like the Episcopal Church, are by and large much more comfortable with welcoming than with proclamation. In fact we’d sort of like to think that the former can substitute for the latter. And for the people who actually walk up to our doors looking for a community with which to puzzle out this whole God business, maybe it can. But there are a whole lot of people wondering and seeking and struggling who are not going to walk up to these doors, for all kinds of reasons. They’ve been burned by church in the past, or simply found it boring and irrelevant. Or their lives have just never taken them close enough to church and faith for it to occur to them that they might find strength, solace, grace, purpose, in a community of faith and in relationship with the Divine. And there are people who are genuinely not in the market for a church, but who might still be looking for God.
Think about the task of evangelism that Jesus gives the disciples. It would have been much easier to go to each village, rent the Elks lodge, hold a big dinner, invite everybody, and then while they’re sitting there between dinner and dessert, and feel like they owe you their attention in exchange for the meal, that’s when you stand up and talk about Jesus.
Being the host is a position of power. Being the guest means making yourself beholden. Entering someone else’s home, and life, and story. When we are the guest – whether it’s at a meal in someone’s home, or out at a coffee shop, or hanging out at a community picnic, or any time when the setting and occasion are not our own – when we are the guest, we set aside the security of our own familiar space, and the comfort of being the people who called the meeting, with the implicit right to frame the conversation and set the agenda. When we’re the guest, we feel keenly that we can’t sit at someone’s table, eat their food, and then push back our plate and say, I’d like to tell you about Jesus. You can’t demand your host’s attention or cooperation. That’s not how hospitality works, for host or guest.
Jesus sends his disciples out to share the good news that God works for good for and around and within and among us; and to share that good news from the vulnerability, the beholden-ness, of being a guest. Just as he did. I think that approach was wise then; I think it may be even wiser now. We live in a capitalist society which has trained all of us to be keenly aware of when we are being sold something. Americans are very sensitive to being treated as marks, as potential sales. And generally speaking, we don’t much care for it. Even when I actually want to buy a sofa, having a saleswoman sidle up to me with a big smile makes me a little uncomfortable.
But if we can’t enter the conversation with our plans laid out and our speeches prepared, then what can we do? Well – we can listen to our hosts, or fellow guests. Their hopes, their hurts, their longings. We can be open to moments when we might speak God’s love into someone’s life, through relationship rather than agenda. Genuineness instead of preparedness. Presence instead of power. Small moments instead of big speeches. As Rob Chappell said last year, just saying, “I’ll pray about that,” says a lot.
It helps if you can manage to think of what you have to say about God in your life – your testimony, friends – as a gift instead of an imposition. It’s a truth you have to tell about yourself – and listen, I know y’all; I know that those stories range from “God saved my life” to “I’m not sure why I’m here or whether I believe any of this stuff but something keeps bringing me back.” All those stories are gifts; all those stories contain grace; they’re all worth telling. Trust me.
Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us how this mission turned out, how it all went for those disciples sent forth as sheep among wolves. But Luke does, in his telling. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out not twelve but seventy disciples, empty-handed, unprepared, to find someone who’ll house them and feed them, and look for opportunities to talk about God. And Luke says, They returned with joy.
They returned with joy. Amen.